Perspectives Online

In her research on mammalian endocrinology and the biological effects of dairy products, Brenda Alston-Mills studies the link between milk proteins and their effects on tumorigenesis as part of her research in breast cancer.
(Photo by Becky Kirkland)
Dr. Brenda Alston-Mills, a veteran animal science professor who is the College's newly appointed assistant dean for diversity, has never forgotten what her mother told her and her sisters when they were young: "You are as good as anyone; but never better."

It's fortunate that Alston-Mills, born in a then-rural but racially integrated area of Philadelphia known as "Elmwood" or "the Meadows," inculcated that outlook, because she was introduced at an early age to racism.

Also fortunately, her mother lived the philosophy she taught, as illustrated by an incident that occurred while Brenda was attending primary school.

"The class had whites and blacks as was reflective of the neighborhood," Alston-Mills recalls, "and they had elected me to most of the positions: class president, student council president, captain of the safety patrol and a few other things."

(Photo by Becky Kirkland)
But her teacher - who saw her students as "those in the 'A race' vs. those in the 'B race,'" - decided Brenda, a straight-A student, had "too many responsibilities," she says. "She proceeded to take away many of my responsibilities and give them to a white girl. Marie was my friend, so I did not begrudge her the positions, but it was the principle of the way it was done.

"I was really upset, and my mother went to speak to the teacher, who told my mother that I was 'mentally unstable' and would never amount to anything," Alston-Mills says. "My fear was that my mother was going to hit her."

Despite all, Alston-Mills won top class awards. "Granted," she says, "with 13 people in the class there was not much competition, but I tested well in all of the standard exams."

Well enough, in fact, for admission to Philadelphia High School for Girls, an all-academic college-preparatory school.

"This was my first real introduction to international multiculturalism," Alston-Mills says, "because the school was mostly Jewish, although about 10 percent of its students were World War II refugees from countries like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Latvia, and most were bilingual."

She then enrolled at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Penn., as a biology and chemistry major.

She paid for her own first year, but afterward attended on scholarships and work-study.

The value of her science and philosophy mentors during those days made her a staunch advocate of mentoring.

In 2001, she returned to Lycoming as the college's convocation speaker and as a board of trustees member, co-chair of its academic policies committee and winner of its outstanding alumnae achievement award.

After Lycoming, Alston-Mills was a teaching fellow in biology in 1967 at historically black Claflin College in Orangeburg, S.C. She also taught French, which she'd brushed up on at a language institute in France the previous summer.

Her undergraduate interest in endocrinology led to her research in hormonal regulation of the mammary gland development and lactation for her master's (Michigan State University, 1972), and to work in breast cancer for her Ph.D. (MSU, 1984).

Alston-Mills (in her lab with two students) continues to advise undergraduates and chair graduate student committees. "Our objectives are to promote awareness of food and agricultural science disciplines and careers to underrepresented groups," she says.
(Photo by Art Latham)
From 1984 to 1990, she was associate professor at the University of Maryland's animal sciences department. At Maryland, she won the alumni excellence in teaching award. And from 1990 to 2000, she was associate professor in N.C. State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Animal Science Department.

After a stint as a visiting professor of pathology and laboratory science at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (2002 to 2003), she returned to the College position she has held since 2000, professor of animal science.

Alston-Mills has taught anatomy and physiology of domestic animals, lectures in mammalian endocrinology and co-teaches biology of milk. She continues to advise undergraduate students and to serve as chair for graduate student committees.

Her research centers around milk as a biological fluid: determining the extent to which factors in milk regulate or modulate the structure and function of the mammary gland, as well as how genetic influences on lactational performance affect subsequent growth in mice and pigs.

"There is now a link between certain milk proteins and their effects on tumorigenesis, some really good evidence to show that whey proteins (soluble fraction) are preventative," she notes. "The link allows me to continue my work in breast cancer and to investigate dairy products for their biological effects."

At N.C. State, she has received the Animal Science Club's Outstanding Science Faculty award. She also was named to N.C. State's Academy of Outstanding Teachers and was named Outstanding Faculty Adviser, and she received the provost's African-American Professional Development Award in 1997.

She was admitted to Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership honor society in 1987 and is a member of the American Dairy Science and the Tissue Culture associations and Gamma Sigma Delta, the honor society of agriculture. She was elected to Sigma Xi, the scientific research society and to the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Her most recent honor came when Dr. Johnny Wynne, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' dean, named her to lead the College in developing, implementing and assessing strategies, policies and guidelines encompassing diversity goals and in creating an inclusive community.

She remains aware of the issues facing women and members of minority groups.

As a University Diversity Initiative Curriculum Team member, she co-authored "Teaching in the Diverse Classroom" in 2000. The report concluded, "If building agricultural and industrial strength were the key challenges addressed by the founders of the land-grant university system, a comparably significant challenge today is finding ways to enable all our citizens to live and work in productive harmony."

In an article, "Profile of an Uphill Battle," published in a 2003 edition of The Journal of Dairy Science, she wrote: "Sensitivity and the appreciation of differences contribute to the awareness of the problem. A major focus for both groups (students and faculty) is the need for a mentor to guide them through the system. Mentoring is only one aspect to aid in forward progression, and it is a partnership of mutual trust.

"The overall goal is to allow each individual to maintain identity, while contributing to the advancement of agricultural sciences through a diversity of ideas."

Her mentoring efforts have resulted in such programs as one in which she collaborated with Dr. Greg Fenner, associate professor of crop science, to land $139,000 in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Higher Education Academic grants to train and educate students in agricultural and food sciences.

The resultant program for North Carolina students accepted into CALS helped them get a study boost while interning on campus the summer before they started university classes.

"Our objectives are to promote awareness of food and agricultural science disciplines and careers to underrepresented groups," says Alston-Mills. "And we want to enhance the course work to help incoming students make the transition into academic careers, while encouraging studies of food and agricultural sciences."

For the First-Year Inquiry Program's linked course community, she presents workshops and seminars on strategies for student success and teaches in the program.

But she still recalls incidents that forged her determination to remember her mother's axiom.

In the mid-1980s, poised on the brink of leveraging her academic and personal achievements into an outstanding career, she experienced another ethnic epiphany in Detroit.

"I was in a suburb, wearing my Michigan State sweatshirt and cutoffs, with my hair back," she recalls. "I looked like a student. A woman saw me and grabbed her purse and ran the other way. I was so taken aback. I thought, 'Gee, my Ph.D. doesn't mean anything to anybody. All they see is my little brown face.'"

Not any more.